An analysis of the factors controlling rates of nitrogen cycling in northern temperate forest ecosystems is presented based on a quantitative analysis of an extensive data set for forests in Wisconsin and Massachusetts as those data are synthesized in a computer model (VEGIE) of organic matter and nutrient dynamics. The model is of the "lumped-parameter," nutrient-flux-density type, dealing with major components of forest ecosystems rather than stems or species. It deals explicitly with the interactions among light, water, and nutrient availability in determining transient and equilibrium rates of primary production and nutrient cycling. Data are presented for parameterizing the plant component of the system at either the species or community level. A major conclusion is that the ultimate control on equilibrium nitrogen-cycling rates resides not within the nitrogen cycle itself (for example in litter quality or net primary production [NPP] allocation patterns) but rather in ratios of resource-use efficiency by vegetation as compared with the ratios of resource availability. Litter quality and allocation patterns, along with rates of N deposition, do affect the rate at which a system approaches the equilibrium cycling rate. The model is used to explain observed variation in nitrogen-cycling rates among forest types, and to predict the timing and occurrence of "nitrogen saturation" (N availability in excess of biotic demand) as a function of nitrogen deposition rates and harvesting.